Thursday, 1 March 2012

M/M Interview with Carter Ratcliff

Image of Carter Ratcliff  taken at the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables by Phyllis Derfner is provided to Manner of Man Magazine for exclusive use and cannot be reproduced without written authorisation. All rights reserved.

This exclusive interview with Carter Ratcliff was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in Coral Gables, Florida during February 2012

Interview with Carter Ratcliff 

How did you get into writing, poetry and journalism?

I drifted around for a while, after college, writing poetry and coming to realize that all the poets of interest to me were in New York.  So I showed up there in the late ’60s, got to know the poets, and started publishing my work in various magazines.  Poets and painters inhabited the same scene, in those days, and nearly all the poets took a fling at writing gallery reviews for Artnews.  I did, too, and soon after began writing the “New York Letter,” for Art International, which was published in Lugano.  After a few seasons, I realized that I had become a poet/art critic. 

Where do you find inspiration for your poetry?

Everything is inspiration—daily life, art, movies, other poets’ poetry, the works of Dashiell Hammett, and what not.  These are all sources of the language or fragments of language that are usually the starting point for a poem.  I hear or read or sometimes even say something that seems to need to be elaborated poetically.
You are well-known for your monographs on Andy Warhol and John Singer Sargent. What do you find most appealing about biographical work regarding artists?

From the start of my career as an art critic I rejected the formalist idea that art is autonomous, which turned, by hook and by crook, into the current idea that art deals with detachable “issues.”  Both approaches set art apart from life, reducing it to an object of specialized institutional interest.  If we are to get at the meaning of art, we have to see it as it is in the world—the life’s work of a certain individual, developing out of that life and addressed to a certain audience.  Of course, Warhol and Sargent were individuals of particular interest, who found audiences who were almost as interesting as they were.     

What was it like to be in New York in the art world during the 1970s?

When I started out, I focused mostly painting.  Many of the liveliest artists of the 1970s were determined to leave painting behind and come up with new modes and mediums of art—process art, performance art, earthworks, conceptual art, and more.  So the ’70s were a bit trying for me.  I found conceptual art particularly annoying, amateur philosophy that many in the New York art world labored to take seriously.  Still, as I got to know the non-painters I had to admit that some of them were terrific artists—Vito Acconci, for example, who had begun as a poet.  And Robert Smithson, who was, I think, the most important artist of that era.

What are you working on currently?

I am putting together a selection of essays and a book of poems, while trying to decide which of several art projects to take on.

If you could have your portrait done by any artist, living or deceased, whom would it be? And why?

It would be Thomas Lawrence, the Regency portraitist who was so important for Sargent as he left France and Impressionism for England and a high style.  Everyone mentions Joshua Reynolds’s influence on Sargent, which was considerable, but I think Lawrence was even more important for him.  In some of Lawrence’s portraits, the sheer elegance of the image is so intense you can hardly see the sitter.  And of course the backdrop to Lawrence’s art, the Regency period, was wonderful—Beau Brummell and Bulwer-Lytton, with his “society novels,” in one corner and, in another, Shelley and Keats, with Byron as a sort of link between factions that didn’t acknowledge one another’s existence.  There was the architecture of John Nash, Brighton Pavilion and all the rest of it, and Turner sailing toward his late style, and, of course, Jane Austen.  The Regency was so lively that the English had to come up with Victorianism to give themselves a breather.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be doing today?

I’d probably be a lawyer, like so many of my uncles and cousins and friends at school, because lawyers, like poets, focus sharply on language—not the language I care about the most but, now that I think of it, the lingo of the law and constitutional theorizing has gotten into some of my poems.  

The above interview with Carter Ratcliff 2012 © Manner of Man Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.